ARLINGTON, Texas — Arizona State coach Todd Graham did not pretend like Saturday’s game against Notre Dame was a must-win. He made it clear more than once this week that ASU’s top priority is winning the Pac-12.
But make no mistake: He wanted it.
“I’ll tell you what: We really wanted to be 4-1,” Graham said. “Obviously, I’m disappointed. Being real honest, I thought we’d be 4-1.”
But as the program has so many times before, ASU slipped and fell on the big stage Saturday, losing 37-34 at Cowboys Stadium in a game it could have won.
ASU fans will continue to wonder, even with the culture change under Graham, if the Sun Devils will be able to deliver a marquee win on such a platform any time soon. While the personnel has obviously changed, ASU (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) has not won a nonconference regular-season road game against a BCS-conference opponent since a 2006 over Colorad, then a member of the Big 12.
“I told our guys after the game that we had a great opportunity,” Graham said. “We had great fans out; I could hear them the whole time. I’m really disappointed we didn’t deliver for them.
“This was an opportunity for us to win on a national stage.”
Beating Notre Dame would have significantly impacted ASU’s program in a myriad of ways, from recruiting to national recognition to booster support. Notre Dame, while unranked, might have represented the highest-profile opponent yet for ASU under such circumstances, and the Sun Devils crumbled late, succumbing once again in an all-too-familiar manner.
What was uncharacteristic was ASU’s defense, which made a slew of errors throughout the evening. From misalignments and penalties to dropped interceptions and a lack of pressure up front, it was clear that this is not the same defense that carried the Sun Devils for portions of last season.
Though Todd Graham said he believed the defense played well enough to win, it seems that the players understand there is much progress to be made if this defense is to still achieve the goals it has set for this season.
“At some point we’ve got to stop making errors if we want to reach our goals and be the dominant defense that we can be,” senior cornerback Osahon Irabor said. “We could have played a lot better. We need to play a lot better.”
ASU gave up 279 passing yards to Notre Dame and quarterback Tommy Rees, and while that was not a season high, when combined with the numerous miscues, it was clearly the secondary’s worst day.
The offense was party to the letdown as well. Under heavy pressure most of the game, quarterback Taylor Kelly threw two interceptions, one for a touchdown in the game’s final two minutes. And sophomore receiver Richard Smith fumbled after a third-quarter reception, setting up Notre Dame for a 27-yard touchdown drive that extended the Irish’s lead to 24-13.
“That turnover was critical in the game,” Graham said. “That was big. I thought that was the play of the game.”
ASU did come back from that miscue to tie the score at 27 with just over eight minutes to play. But, as Graham pointed out, the turnovers led to 14 critical points.
“It was difficult to swallow turning the ball over that many times,” Graham said. “Clearly, that was the difference.”
Though Kelly finished 33 of 47 for 362 yards and three touchdowns, he took significant blame for the loss, saying he must have better trust in the players around him and better understand his surroundings. And though Kelly would never say it, his offensive line deserved some of the blame for his missteps Saturday.
After a dominant performance last week, holding a USC defensive front that led the conference in sacks to none, the offensive line looked overmatched against Notre Dame’s talented front. There were both individual and unit-wide breakdowns against the Irish, who consistently collapsed the pocket and ended up with six sacks of Kelly.
“You’ve got to give them a lot of credit,” Graham said. “We haven’t been sacked like that all year, so they did a great job.”
Certainly, Notre Dame deserves credit for the win. The Irish defense played perhaps better than it has all season, particularly in the trenches, limiting ASU to 65 rushing yards. Receiver T.J. Jones had eight receptions for 135 yards and a touchdown. Notre Dame also won the special-teams battle and committed only one turnover.
Still, the Sun Devils believed they should have won the game going into it, and that opinion isn’t likely to change in hindsight.
All offseason, discussion of ASU’s season began with the four-game stretch against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. The consensus was that ASU needed to at least weather the stretch by going 2-2, preferably with two Pac-12 wins. The Sun Devils have done that, and though they should perhaps be 4-1, they like where they stand.
“All of our goals are still open,” Kelly said. “For the Pac-12 South and to get to the Rose Bowl and the Pac-12 championship game. So we’ve got to come ready to work.”
Added Irabor: “Like Taylor’s saying, we’re still 1-0 in the South, so we’re definitely ready to get back into the Pac-12 fold and just focus on our next opponent and hopefully learn from this tough stretch.”
As much as fans might prefer to wallow in the disappointment of Saturday’s loss and the opportunity lost, the Sun Devils are right: They can still accomplish what they set out to at the beginning of the season.
It would require significant improvement on defense, better ball security and more to get there, but the opportunity remains. ASU is still in prime position in the Pac-12 South race, and it can take another step next week when it eases out of the four-week gauntlet by hosting Colorado.
The fans may have come to grips with that by next Saturday, but for them, the sting of Saturday’s disappointing defeat will not wear off quickly.
“We didn’t get it done as a coaching staff, but you move on,” Graham said. “I’m proud of our guys. We played our tails off the first five games, and now it’s all conference play. We go to work. This team is capable of winning a championship.”